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Federal Disaster Relief Assistance

Where Has Disaster Relief Assistance Been Applied?
Current Disaster Relief Assistance Programs
Role of Disaster Relief Assistance in Capacity Reduction
Sources and Recommended Reading


Federal assistance has been available to help ease the impacts of fishery resource disasters since the 1960s. Most of this assistance has taken the form of economic aid packages to help affected fishermen and coastal communities deal with poor economic conditions in the fishery and/or a stock collapse. Justification for government involvement has usually been based on humanitarian grounds.

Federal disaster relief assistance programs were first authorized under the Commercial Fisheries Research and Development Act of 1964 and later, by the Interjurisdictional Fisheries Act of 1986 and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSFCMA), as amended in 1996.

Several federal agencies have contributed to fisheries disaster relief assistance over the years, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Economic Development Administration within the U.S. Department of Commerce; the Rural Development Administration within the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the Federal Emergency Management Agency; the U.S. Department of Labor; the Small Business Administration; and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Where Has Disaster Relief Assistance Been Applied?

Since 1994, more than $200 million in economic aid has been applied to fishery resource disasters in the United States. These funds have supported a wide variety of programs that perform many different services. Some provide direct financial assistance to affected fishermen and fishing communities in the forms of grants and low-interest loans. Others offer job retraining and/or direct employment opportunities. Still others enhance fishery data collection and research to both prevent and mitigate the effects of future disasters. Funds have been allocated to fisheries from coast to coast, and are summarized in the following paragraphs by geographic region, including:
  1. The North Pacific;
  2. The Pacific Northwest;
  3. The Gulf of Mexico; and
  4. The Northeast.
North Pacific

A commercial fishery failure in the Bristol Bay sockeye and Kuskokwim River chum salmon fisheries led Congress to appropriate $7 million in disaster relief funds to the State of Alaska in November 1997. In addition to economic planning, fisheries research, and administrative support, the state used this money to provide community grants and a fishermen's loan program. An additional declaration in September 1998 led to a congressional appropriation of assistance in the amount of $50 million, which was provided to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and distributed through several federal agencies: $15 million was administered through the Economic Development Administration's Economic Development Assistance Program; $5 million was transferred to the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program; $7 million funded disaster research and prevention within the Department of Commerce; $5 million was provided to the Small Business Administration to fund direct loans to eligible small businesses in the region; and $18 million was allocated to the State of Alaska for economic assistance to families with incomes below the poverty level.

Pacific Northwest

Widespread salmon fishery closures affecting an estimated 8,000 fishermen in Washington, Oregon, and northern California led to a fishery resource disaster declaration by the Secretary of Commerce in May 1994 and, again, in August 1995. The Northwest Emergency Assistance Plan, developed in response to these declarations, provided approximately $25 million in economic aid to salmon fisheries in the states of Washington ($13.6 million), Oregon ($7.7 million), and California ($3.4 million). These funds supported both habitat restoration and data collection jobs' programs in all three states, and a salmon license buyback program in the state of Washington.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency contributed an additional $10 million to this region in the form of disaster unemployment assistance. These funds were also divided among the states of Washington ($6.4 million), Oregon ($2.3 million), and California ($1.6 million). The Small Business Administration provided low-interest loans and debt-restructuring programs, and the Rural Development Administration contributed $3 million in grants used to finance small business development in rural areas.

An additional $3.5 million was made available to the state of Washington in 1998 to help mitigate the impacts of damage to the salmon fishery from flooding between 1995 and 1997. The purpose of these funds was to finance another commercial salmon license retirement program.

Gulf of Mexico

The President made available $15 million to Gulf states in response to a fishery disaster declaration for the Gulf of Mexico in August 1995. Five million of this total was offered as financial assistance to commercial and charterboat fishermen who suffered uninsured losses due to the impacts of hurricanes or floods and who could meet the eligibility requirements. The full $5 million was not claimed by the October 1996 deadline. The remaining $10 million was allocated to five state fishery agencies in the region for projects designed to reduce the long-term adverse impacts of the disasters on both fish stocks and habitat in the Gulf region.

Economic aid requested by the state of Mississippi in 1996 to provide relief from red tide impacts on oyster populations was denied by NMFS on the basis of both the limited duration of the incident and the absence of lasting impacts on the oyster reserve. But two years later, $3.5 million was granted to the states of Louisiana and Mississippi to restore the Gulf of Mexico brown shrimp fishery, which was damaged by floods the previous year, and to fund research on red tides.


A total of $90 million in funding has been used to assist with the resource disaster declared in the New England groundfish fishery in 1995. Sixty-three million dollars of this total has been used to fund a variety of services, such as technical assistance and loan programs, retraining programs, and fishing family assistance centers that provide fishermen with information on federal and state services and assistance available to them. The remaining $27 million was used to fund a vessel buyback program, with $2 million allocated to a health insurance program for New England fishermen.

Current Disaster Relief Assistance Programs

On July 13th President Clinton signed an emergency supplemental spending bill for fiscal year 2000 that provides an additional $118.5 million in disaster relief assistance funding to the U.S. Department of Commerce. The Economic Development Administration was allocated $55.8 million of this total to use for planning, grants, and loan programs for communities affected by Hurricane Floyd and other recent hurricanes and disasters. The remaining $62.7 million was allocated to NOAA to be divided as follows: $30.7 million to assist fishermen impacted by recent hurricanes and other disasters in the Long Island Sound lobster fishery and the West Coast groundfish fishery, and for repair of the NOAA hurricane reconnaissance aircraft; $10 million to provide disaster relief assistance and improve research in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands crab fishery; $10 million to support a voluntary buyback program in the Northeast multispecies fishery; $7 million to study longline interactions with sea turtles and to fund the use of observers in the Hawaiian longline fishery; and $5 million to establish a North Pacific Marine Research Institute.

Role of Disaster Relief Assistance in Capacity Reduction

Federal disaster relief assistance can have positive or negative effects on fishing capacity, depending on the types of programs it supports.

Funds used to develop and implement buyback programs (as applied in the West Coast salmon and New England groundfish fisheries) can directly assist with capacity reduction, but initial reductions in capacity achieved by the programs are likely to erode over the long term if no mechanisms are in place to prevent capacity from increasing at a later date (Click here to read about market-based management tools). In addition, funds used for retraining and/or alternative employment programs can indirectly assist with capacity reduction by providing fishermen a stepping-stone out of the fishery in difficult times.

Other uses of disaster assistance, such as direct loan payments and loan restructuring programs, have been criticized for contributing to the problem of overcapacity by offering fishermen relief that allows (even encourages) them to continue fishing well past the point where all other factors would have signaled a need to find alternative employment. Critics argue that these programs simply delay (and even exacerbate) the inevitable economic problems associated with overfishing and note that disaster relief assistance can become a significant drain on public resources if underlying capacity problems are not addressed.

Sources and Recommended Reading

Congressional Research Service. 1997. Commercial Fishing: Economic Aid and Capacity Reduction, 14 April 1997.

Federal Fisheries Investment Task Force. 1999. Report to Congress, July 1999.

Government Accounting Office. 2000. Commercial Fisheries: Entry of Fishermen Limits Benefits of Buyback Programs. RCED-00-120, June 14.

U.S. Congress. 2000. Public Law 106-246: Military Construction Appropriations Act, 2001.

Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. 1995. Northwest Emergency Assistance Plan: Vessel Permit Buy Out Program, August. Seattle, WA.

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